But the silicon switches in your laptop’s CPU inherently don’t understand the word “for” or the “=” symbol. In order for the chip to execute your Python code, the software must translate these words and symbols into instructions that the chip can use.
Engineers define specific binary sequences to tell the hardware to perform certain actions. The code “100000”, for example, might tell the chip to add two numbers, while the code “100100” might ask it to copy a piece of data. These binary sequences form the chip’s fundamental dictionary, known as the computer’s instruction set.
For years, the chip industry has relied on many proprietary instruction sets. Two main types dominate the market today: x86, used by Intel and AMD, and Arm, made by the company of the same name. Companies must license these instruction sets, which can cost millions of dollars for a single design. And because x86 and Arm chips speak different languages, software developers must build a version of the same application to match each instruction set.
Recently, however, many hardware and software companies around the world have begun to coalesce around a publicly available instruction set known as RISC-V. This is a shift that could radically change the IC industry. Proponents of RISC-V say this set of instructions makes computer chip design more accessible to small companies and budding entrepreneurs, freeing them from expensive licensing fees.
“There are already billions of RISC-V-based cores in everything from headphones to cloud servers,” says Mark Gimelstein, CTO of RISC-V International, a nonprofit that supports the technology.
In February 2022, Intel itself pledged $1 billion to develop the RISC-V ecosystem, among other priorities. While Himmelstein predicts it will be several years before RISC-V chips become widely available in personal computers, the first notebook with a RISC-V chip, the Roma from Xcalibyte and DeepComputing, became available for pre-order in June.
What is RISC-V?
You can think of RISC-V (pronounced “risk five”) as a set of design norms, like Bluetooth, for computer chips. It is known as an “open standard”. This means that anyone—you, me, Intel—can contribute to the development of these standards. Additionally, anyone can design a computer chip based on the RISC-V instruction set. These chips will then be able to run any software designed for RISC-V. (Note that technology based on an “open standard” is different from “open source” technology. An open standard usually defines the specifications of the technology, while “open source” usually refers to software whose source code is available to reference and usage.)
A group of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, developed the framework for RISC-V in 2010 as a teaching aid for microcircuit design. Proprietary central processing units (CPUs) were too complex and opaque for students to learn on. The creators of RISC-V published the instruction set and soon found themselves asking questions about it. In 2015, a group of academic institutions and companies, including Google and IBM, founded RISC-V International to standardize the instruction set.